Opa-locka has a long road back to solvency

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Former Opa-locka City Manager David Chiverton, left, is going to prison. Commissioner Luis B. Santiago might be indicted.
Former Opa-locka City Manager David Chiverton, left, is going to prison. Commissioner Luis B. Santiago might be indicted. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Opa-locka is a mess. At least one of the people responsible for the city’s sorry and corrupt state is going to prison for three years. We hope others follow. Opa-locka didn’t fall in its financial hole all by itself.

Former City Manager David Chiverton pleaded guilty to conspiring to shake down business owners seeking permits to operate in a poor city that desperately needs the economic boost and, perhaps, jobs that those businesses would bring.

They thought they were entrepreneurs. But Chiverton saw them as cash cows. They wanted permits and water connections. Chiverton wanted, and later admitted to getting, payoffs from them.

Chiverton is just one shoe to fall. Others might. A grand jury is expected to return indictments against Commissioner Luis Santiago, among others. The commissioner will not be returning to the dais after losing a re-election bid. Already, Gregory Harris, supervisor of public works, pleaded guilty in August to the same bribery charge as Chiverton. Both of them are cooperating with authorities as the investigation continues.

That’s the least they can do. Way too many officials entrusted with the city’s health and well-being, were in it for themselves. The Herald’s Mike Sallah and Jay Weaver have documented well Opa-locka’s administrative atrocities: allowing businesses — including Mayor Myra Taylor’s school — to skip out on paying their water bills and, instead, set up new, unblemished accounts; sometimes, city employees turned off customers’ water, demanding money — or sex, according to a police report — to restore service. It’s imperative that there be consequences.

One consequence has been the state’s takeover to reverse Opa-locka’s race over the cliff. But according to Merrett Stierheim, an experienced hand at government administration, the city is not doing enough to help itself. He is special assistant to state Inspector General Melinda Miguel, appointed, along with an oversight board, by Gov. Scott, to ensure Opa-locka not only doesn’t declare bankruptcy, but also to set it on a path to solvency.

That’s going to be one long, torturous road, according to Mr. Stierheim. The last budget audit was for fiscal year 2014-15, he told the Editorial Board. There was no audit for the budget of fiscal year 2015-16, which just ended. And there’s no budget, period, for 2016-17. Did we mention that the city has no director of finance?

“The basic tenet of the commission-manager form of government is a dichotomy of policy — set by the commission — and the execution of those policies, by administration,” Mr. Stierheim said. “In Opa-locka that role has been completely reversed. The mayor and commission basically dictate the day-to-day operation of the city, even down to individual employees and activities.”

There are, he says, $2.3 million in invoices that are not in last year’s budget, and making the payroll has become a perpetual high-wire act.

In addition, the city is supposed to submit to the governor a five-year economic recovery plan, but the process remains a distant concept, yet another dereliction of elected officials’ duty. One hope? That newly elected commissioner Matthew Pigatt, who ousted Mr. Santiago on Nov. 8, is the reformer he says he is. He’ll have a willing partner in Commissioner Joseph Kelley.

Right now, they’re in the minority. But with the state breathing down the city’s neck, this might be the best shot to clean up this mess of a city.